Philly students, teachers join in monumental art project to honor Octavius Catto

School district initiative aims to focus on forgotten chapters of Philadelphia history.

Philadelphia students and teachers combined art and history to honor one of Philadelphia’s forgotten heroes Monday.

About 200 students gathered, 100 at a time, in the City Hall courtyard to paint roughly half of a 6,000-square-foot mural dedicated to Octavius Catto, who made history in civil rights activism and sports in 19th-century Philadelphia. The finished mural will cover the east facade of the Universal Institute Charter building near 15th and Catharine streets in South Philadelphia.

The painting project was part of an event celebrating the end of the city school district’s professional development initiative to help middle and high school teachers incorporate the Catto’s life into their lesson plans. Throughout the school year, the district offered five workshops covering various aspects of Catto’s legacy.

The goal is to teach students about the history of black and brown people, as well as to inspire activism, said Shaquita Smith, the district’s social studies curriculum specialist.

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Kimberly Copeland, a teacher at Mayfair Elementary in the Northeast, said she took part in the initiative to raise awareness about Catto and his legacy — and to draw a connection to the current issues of racism and sexism her students face.

“I knew that I wanted to end my eighth-grade students’ year talking about issues that are relevant to them today, but also relevant to historical premise,” she said.

Future development sessions will cast light on other lesser-known chapters of Philadelphia history including the legacy of W.E.B. DuBois; the desegregation of Girard College; and the U.S. Census as a teaching tool.

One of Catto’s most noted accomplishments was desegregating Philadelphia’s early trolley system. He also co-founded the Philadelphia Pythians, who played in the nation’s first recorded interracial baseball game. In the end, however, his fight for equality cost him his life. He was shot during a riot on Election Day in 1871 while trying to get black voters to the polls. He was 32 years old.

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Despite his significant contributions, Catto was relatively unknown in the city until last fall when his statue was unveiled on the south side of City Hall.

Mayor Jim Kenney said historical figures such as Catto and the country’s struggle with inequality “are things people need to know about, and we can’t sweep them under the rug.”

“Many of the people who were heroes at the time were left out of the history books because the people who took them out of the history books didn’t want you to know who they were,” said Kenney. “And the most important thing about Catto and the memorial and the statue is that now we know who he is, and we know who the people who worked with him are.”

Shahla Mukhtar, a sophomore at Julia R. Masterman School who helped with the mural Monday, said she wants to learn more about Catto and other historical figures who fell into obscurity.

“There’s a lot of people that we don’t know about. And even Octavius Catto, a lot of people didn’t know his name until recently,” she said. “So I think it is important to learn more about that stuff.”

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